And I say Hello...

January 15, 2009

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival…Rumi

Last Sunday, I found myself employing delay tactics. I hung out in bed for an extra ½ hour and then skimmed a book found at my mom’s bedside instead of taking a shower. When I investigated a new route from my mother’s house near San Francisco to the Mills Peninsula Acute Rehabilitation Center where my father-in-law is recovering from a head injury, I realized I was still dragging my feet.

This surprised me since up to that point I had been welcoming the time to hang out with Peter T. Combs.  His brilliance and sense of humor were passed down well among his children and grandchildren. As the progenitor, it was fun to watch Peter T. still able to creatively analyze a problem, joke with a service provider and then wonder if could tip him.

I had been in CA for four days, but that morning sadness caught me and slowed my progress. I couldn’t relieve his confusion about his whereabouts — amnesia around the fall and the days following makes being in California, instead of his winter home in Mexico, hard for him to comprehend. I also can not solve his periodic wish to “get going and head home.” That day I needed to return to Bozeman for three days and I didn’t like that my absence might add to his disorientation. Away, I wouldn’t be able to make things a little easier.

I know I can’t save him from this challenge. Yet, we are in a time when he suffers, if I show up and pay attention, I too feel pain. I worry about his loss of memory, self-determination and potential companionship. I wonder how long will we all get to practice this form of descent into tough times. 

I don’t initially welcome these uncomfortable emotions. I’d much rather feel happiness, thank you very much! Yet, when my aversion to these feeling, and thus to the situation, has me wanting to run for cover, I know it is time once again to practice “saying hello.” 

Pushing against or turning away from our struggles will not cure them. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions are clear, an aversion to what we don’t like actually causes more suffering. From the Christian tradition we are told to “love your enemies,” even if they happen to be emotions like helplessness or grief. Confusion or sadness do not just go away because we pretend they are not there.

Instead, we are counseled cross-culturally to just notice and be with tough emotions when they appear. From the Islamic Sufi tradition, the twelfth century poet Jelaluddin Rumi suggests we see our interior as a home where every emotion is welcomed as an honored guest. We invite everyone in, whether my favorite buddy Joy or that strange character Insecurity. They visit and keep an eye on them as we might if were to host a dinner party. 

We are wired to try to run from pain. Remembering this, I have developed a habit of acknowledging awkward internal visitors with an unspoken, “Hello Fear,” or “Hi there Frustration.” Strangely, by recognizing I’m nervous, sad, or afraid, I calm down. When I don’t resist the new arrival, both the emotion and I seem to ease. I have to giggle when I find myself saying, “Hi anxiety.” Ain’t that the truth at times!

So this week, as we figure out how to support my father-in-law, I am saying hello regularly to Confusion. Fear drops by from time to time and I’m glad that Happiness and I were able to spend many hours together over those four California days. But, when you see her, do say hi to Sadness for me. She sure has a knack for reminding us of all the good that has come our way.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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